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Engineering acrobatics

A French-Canadian spectacular opens tonight - at a derelict London power station. Richard Bennett reports on the civil engineers who have run away to join the show.

Cirque du Soleil rolls into town today bringing its unique mixture of trapeze artists, dancers and acrobats in its latest show 'Quidam'.

Latin for 'anonymous passer by', the show is an aerial extravaganza which turns gravity on its head. From 40m above the audience trapeze artists swing and plummet into view. Performers drop headfirst to earth, snake through swathes of silk and fly through aerial hoops. At ground level, pyramids of somersaulting acrobats dance to the rhythm of giant skipping ropes and the sounds of strings, synthesizers and guitars.

Too large to be housed by the Albert Hall, home of previous Cirque du Soleil shows, this animal-free human spectacle is being staged at Battersea power station, the latest stop on its eight country tour. A huge 2,500 seat Big Top, known as the Grand Chapiteau, has been erected in an old 0.5ha rail yard next to the derelict power station on the south bank of the Thames.

More than just a tent, the Grand Chapiteau is a self supporting mobile town which comes in 54 trailers, weighs 1,000t and accommodates a school, physiotherapy suite, and restaurant serving 400 meals a day.

The show is intended to kickstart development of the power station shell - the largest brick structure in Europe - into the Battersea Experience, an £850M Tate Modern-style restoration which is expected to start in 2002. Inside will be shops, hotels, flats and a circular theatre, which will host Cirque du Soleil's first permanent show in Europe. A new rail line will connect the Battersea Experience with Victoria station.

Quidam is a touring show, having come to London from Frankfurt, but the site has required £500,000 of groundworks to prepare it for its six week stay. The 25m high Grand Chapiteau is so large and heavy that its poles require concrete foundations, as does the Telepherique, the 120m long cable stayed lattice steel structure from which the trapeze artists swing. Tent pegs are replaced by ground anchors, and the previously derelict site has had to be levelled and paved with asphalt.

Getting all this done on time has been quite a juggling act for project manager Schofield Lothian and contractor Dean & Dyball, as everyone knows the show must go on. 'We had a drop dead date for completion, but in August we didn't have a site, ' says Schofield Lothian chief executive Keith Kirkwood.

Work started on site on 13 October and has continued through the wettest October since records began. 'We mobilised in 24 hours, and started clearing the site without a design or planning permission, ' says Dean & Dyball site agent Darren Chandler.

Trial pits and historical research on the site revealed a number of old filled basements, cobbles, rubble and clay fill.

Before it was a GNER goods yard the site had been part of an old reservoir. Consulting engineer Robert Benaim designed the mass concrete pads and tension anchor foundations.

Together with engineer Jane Wernick they also checked the French designed tent structure to satisfy Wandsworth Borough Council that it complied with building regulations.

Site clearance was followed by the removal of 5,000m 3ofmaterial to landfill, then Dean & Dyball imported 12,000t of crushed concrete type 1 subbase. As the site evolved design changes became a constant feature. 'Cirque du Soleil certainly isn't a conventional client, and there are some interesting theatrical characters involved, ' says Kirkwood.

Once the site had been levelled drainage was installed and the whole area paved with 177,000m 2of 60mm thick blacktop, including 500 parking spaces. 'The client didn't want visitors having to walk on hardcore, ' says Chandler. Erection of the Grand Chapiteau followed, requiring 100 technicians working for a week under the direction of the performers' own tent master.

Although never really tempted to run away and join the show, Kirkwood admits that he found the job unusually interesting. 'It's amazing for the speed it has worked at. The contract has definitely taken a back seat - actually it hasn't even been signed yet'.

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